The evident weakness of the League and the distraction caused by Mussolini’s misadventures in Abyssinia encouraged Hitler to take his next step, another bold move against the terms of Versailles, when, in March 1936, he ordered his troops into the Rhineland. The use of the Rhineland as a military base had been banned as part of the treaty in order to protect France’s eastern border against future German expansion.
Hitler’s generals had tried to argue against such a manoeuvre, believing that it would force France’s hand into retaliation. Hitler, however, was prepared to take the gamble. He sent only a modest number of troops and gave orders that if the French were to take up arms, they were to withdraw immediately. Had it been the case, Hitler’s position may have looked vulnerable. But although the French protested they did nothing, and nor did the League. Economic sanctions against Germany, although an option, would have had an effect throughout Europe not just in Germany.
So, Hitler’s gamble paid off, and his prestige at home, already high, was enhanced yet further. Italy, still in the midst of fighting against the Abyssinians, took no interest. Britain, feeling that Germany was merely reclaiming her own ‘back garden’, also did nothing. ‘We have no territorial claims to make in Europe,’ remarked Hitler as his troops marched into the Rhineland. Although violating Versailles, his claim was not untrue, after all, the area was part of Germany; Hitler had not invaded a foreign country.
Previously, the people of the Saar region had wanted a return to Germany. The Saar had been under the authority of the League of Nations since 1920 as part of the Treaty of Versailles, and its coal transported to France as part of the reparations package. Versailles had allowed for a plebiscite (or a referendum) after fifteen years, which duly took place in January 1935 when 90.7 per cent voted to rejoin Germany. It was a small but satisfying victory for Hitler, who then claimed that Germany ‘had no further territorial demands to make on France’.